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A short but eventful Olympic Rugby history

By Nell
April 20 2006

(With thanks to Nikos for his article in from which much of the information was taken). Fifteen man rugby’s tenure as an Olympic sport was brief but filled with incident. Rugby was contested during only 4 Olympic competitions. Although the games played were few in number the final one is remembered as much for the extraordinary goings-on off the pitch as for the actual match, even though this did not pass smoothly. This match, played in Paris in 1924, was very newsworthy for all the wrong reasons – the antithesis of the Olympic spirit.

The first two rugby tournaments passed peacefully. They were contested by very few teams.

In Paris in 1900, only three teams took part - France, Germany and the United Kingdom, represented by Moseley Wanderers. The Moseley Wanderers were drawn from a variety of clubs, mainly in the English midlands, although four of their players played for the historic Moseley club. It is not known
how they came to be invited but it should be remembered that this was only the second of the modern Olympic Games and it was still a comparatively informal affair.

The team was :-
H.A. Loveitt (Coventry) back; R. Whittindale, H.S. Nichol (Old Edwardians), L. Hood (Rosslyn Park), C. Whittindale (Aston Old Edwardians), three-quarter backs; J.H. Birtley (Moseley), J. Cantion (London Irish), half-backs; J.G. Wallis (Old Edwardians), C.P. Deykin (Moseley), V. Smith (Old Edwardians), A.J.L. Darby (Cambridge University), M.L. Logan (London Scottish), F.H. Wilson (Old Crusaders), M.W. Talbot (Moseley), F.C. Bayliss (Moseley) forwards.

The Times, 29 October 1900, carried this report :-
“A rugby football match was played today at the Velodrome Municipal at Vincennes between Moseley Wanderers and a team representing the full strength of France. A crowd of 10,000 persons was present. The French team held the advantage from the first and ultimately gained victory by 27 points to 8. The defeat of the Moseley team which was a strong one may be attributed partly to the fatigue of the journey. They only arrived in Paris this morning and have to leave again this evening.” – Reuters.

The fatigue of the team is indisputable as at least five – Birtles and Deykin for Moseley v Coventry and Nichol, Wallis and Smith for Old Edwardians v Leicester had played for their clubs the day before. This was in pre-Bl.riot days, the possible itinerary in the 24 hours before kicking off in Paris could have been: Saturday: matches in the Midlands, train to London, and train to the coast. Sunday: cross-Channel steamer, train to Paris.

A.J.L. Darby was the most illustrious player in the team winning his one and only England international cap in 1899 (losing to Ireland in Dublin), a Barbarian and a Cambridge Blue in 1896/7/8. The only current county player was C.P. Deykin who experienced a heavy week playing for the Midland counties v East Midlands on October 24, for Moseley v Coventry on October 27 and for Great Britain v France on October 28. An under-strength team in the circumstances, though France did not play full internationals until 1906.

A fortnight earlier, France had defeated the only other entrant, Germany, 27-17, so France won the gold medal. Probably on the strength of the fact that Germany scored nine more points than the UK (Moseley Wanderers), they were awarded the silver medal and the UK the bronze. (As there were no play offs for second and third places some reports say that both Germany and UK were presented with silver).

It is interesting to note that the France v United Kingdom rugby match drew the highest crowd of the entire 1900 Olympic Games – about 6000 are thought to have watched the game (rather than 10,000 mentioned in the Times), 4389 of them paying for entry!

The London Olympics of 1908 saw only two teams competing. France did not defend their title and the two teams were Australia and the UK. A third, Anglo Welsh, team had been invited but, as they were touring New Zealand at the time, they had failed to receive the invitation. The UK was this time represented by Cornwall, that year’s county champions. The choice of the Cornwall team was contentious. Very few of their players had played international rugby and they had also been soundlythrashed by the Aussies in Camborne three weeks earlier.

The Cornwall team representing the UK was :-
Edward John Jackett (Falmouth,) back; J.C "Barney" Solomon (Redruth), Bertram Solomon(Redruth), L.F. Dean (Albion), J.T. Jose (Albion), three-quarter backs; Thomas Greenfeld Wedge (St Ives), James Davey (Coventry), half-backs; Richard Jackett (Falmouth), E.J. Jones (Plymouth), Arthur James Wilson (Camborne Students), Nicholas Tregurtha (St Ives), A. Laurey (Redruth), C.R. Marshall (Albion), A. Wilcocks (Plymouth), J. Trevaskis (St Ives),forwards.

We were again on the losing side as Australia won 32 – 3.

Rugby recommenced as an Olympic sport in 1920. After the withdrawal of teams from Romania and Czechoslovakia, only two teams contested the games – France and USA, playing in Antwerp. The USA was represented by a team from California Universities which took gold by a score of 8 - 0.

1924 was the last time rugby was contested at the Olympics and given the extraordinary events that took place it is perhaps easy to understand why it did not remain an Olympic sport.

The Parisian organisers had invited teams from USA and Romania, and France were expecting to win.

The 1920 gold medal winning Californian student team did not exist anymore and only seven of its members were available to travel. To make up the 30 who travelled the team was bolstered by players from other sports – American football, baseball and basketball. The team was a real mish mash with no collective tactical or technical knowledge but with a very strong physical presence. They were sent to England to prepare.

During this preparation the French press really stirred things up depicting the team as thugs, cowboys and bar room brawlers.

The US team met their first obstacle when they were refused entry to France by the customs in Boulogne. They eventually fought their way off the ship and entered France. Things did not get any easier for them. They had their training facilities withdrawn and their preparatory matches cancelled. They were not going to be intimidated though. They broke into the Colombes Stadium in order to train.

The problems of the yanks did not stop there. They were practically confined to their hotel rooms for their own safety, as the French press continued to accuse them of all the wrongs possible. On top of this, all their equipment and numerous personal effects of the players were stolen on the eve of the first match.

In the meantime France had beaten Romania 61-3 (59-3 in some versions). They had scored 13 tries, with 4 coming from the star of the moment, Stade Francais player Aldolphe Jaureguy.

Pumped up by the events of the preceding days, the novice American team beat Romania 39-0, touching down 9 tries, to a background of Parisian heckling.

In the days preceding the final the Americans were again hostage in their hotel as they were met by insults and menace whenever they put their heads out of the door.
The match took place on 18th May at Colombes in front of a crowd of 50,000 spectators, squashed in to such an extent that barriers had to be erected to prevent them from over-spilling onto the pitch. The French, wound up by the press and hungry for revenge after the defeat in Antwerp in 1920, forgot all the fundamentals and were more interested in bashing up the opposition than scoring tries. The defeat of the home team was looking like it might be on the cards as they seemed to be incapable of breaching the almost impenetratable American defence.

The tension in the crowd grew. The few brave American spectators in the crowd were set upon and the match was interrupted whilst ambulances evacuated them via the pitch. Players from both sides thought that it was corpses that were being carried out

At the final whistle the score was 17 - 3 to the States. The pitch was invaded and the French team,aided by the police, did their best to protect their opponents. The Medal ceremony took place with police protection – Gold USA, Silver France and Bronze Romania.

The dreadful image that the 1924 Paris Olympics had given of rugby coincided with the departure of Baron Pierre de Courbetin as head of the Olympic Movement. (The Baron had created the Olympics and was a big rugby fan, having both played and refereed himself. He had refereed the first ever International match in Paris). Together with the problems of attracting sufficient teams to make it a viable sport, this spelt the death knell for rugby at the Olympics.

Will it come back again? Both Russia and North Korea really pushed for it in the 70’s and 80’s but nothing came of it. The timescale of the modern Olympics does not allow for the organisation of a tournament worthy of the games.

It is however possible that 7’s might be accepted rather than the 15-a-side game. It satisfies all the conditions of having sufficient countries practicing the sport, media interest is good, and a tournament can be played in a short period of time.

However, the tendency of the Olympic Committee is towards a reduction in the number of sports and it is unlikely to be included without an existing sport being dropped. Sevens is also competing with golf, squash and roller skating - sports which are all pushing hard for recognition.

Let’s hope that, if 7’s does get accepted, the scenes of the last Olympic rugby match are not repeated!

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